Ozan Varol is a former rocket scientist turned award-winning professor, author, and podcast host in his native country of Istanbul. Varol amassed an array of accomplishments when he moved to America to major in astrophysics at Cornell University. He then served on the operations team for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers project and later became a law professor at Lewis and Clark College. 

Varol also wrote the democratic QPR published by Oxford University Press. Various articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, BBC Time, CNN, The Washington Post, and  Foreign Policy. He blogs weekly on his website and has delivered keynote speeches to small and large groups, major corporations, nonprofits, and government institutions. He joins Jay Shetty to dive into his new book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist, The Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life.

Do you crave a mental focus that will propel you forward in life? Varol shares his wisdom on first principle thinking – knowing the difference between strategy and tactic – and explains some simple techniques on how you can shift your mental focus to make giant leaps in work and life. Read the full article to learn more from him and Jay Shetty.

Think Like a Rocket Scientist

Do you have dreams or goals that seem unattainable? Do you put things on the back shelf and forget about them because they seem unreachable? 

We use the phrase, “It’s not rocket science,” to refer to things that are not hard, and the opposite is true for things that seem hard. The thought process behind that is rocket science is very intimidating for most people, but what it comes down to is a thought process. 

President John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Rice University in 1962 and declared that the USA would land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the decade ended, a statement that seemed obscure to everyone at the time. 

NASA thought he was out of his mind. There were so many prerequisites that needed to be made to land on the moon, none of which had been done yet. For example, no American astronaut had yet worked outside of a spacecraft. NASA also did not know if the moon’s lunar surface was solid enough to support a lander or if their communication systems would work on the moon. Some metals required to build a rocket capable of a moon landing were not even invented yet. 

However, seven years after the president’s declaration and sixty-six years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk lasted twelve seconds and went one hundred feet, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their giant leap for humankind. 

Many will attribute this leap from the Kitty Hawk flight to the moon landing to technology. Still, Varol believes the triumph belongs to the humans behind the technology and a particular thought process they used to turn the seemingly impossible into the possible, and he shares that with Jay Shetty. 

The thought process behind Think Like a Rocket Scientist are nine simple strategies from rocket science. The book explains how to approach uncertainty, be innovative within constraints, approach failure and success, and apply these principles to your life to make giant leaps to attain those dreams and goals you set for yourself.

Nothing Fails Like Success

We consider success the ultimate pinnacle of what we do. Success means we did something right, and we reached the goals we set out to achieve. Although this is positive, Varol believes that success can create complacency.

“The biggest disasters in rocket science history, which are the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, which claimed the lives of all seven astronauts on board,” Varol tells Jay Shetty. “Those disasters happened after NASA had experienced a string of triumphant successes.”

Varol claims at that time NASA began to develop tunnel vision. One engineer wrote a memo six months before the Challenger disaster to explain that if they did not do something to fix the O-rings problem, which is critical in the rocket’s function, it would be a catastrophe of the highest order.

Despite the O-rings’ damage in previous tests, the managers turned a blind eye to the engineers’ outcry because of their success with the earlier launches. It was believed that if they repeated the same process as the successful missions, success was inevitable. 

“The underlying cultural flaw of success creating complacency and conformity was very much evident,” Varol explains to Jay Shetty. 

That complacency contributed to the loss of human life. 

“The first instinct when we succeed is to start lighting cigars, popping champagne, and celebrate,” Varol tells Jay Shetty. “When we do that, we fail to realize that we may have succeeded despite making a bad decision, despite making a serious misstep.”

You need to conduct the same type of analysis with a success as you do with a failure. Look back and think about what contributed to the success. Were there failures in that success that need to be cleaned up? If you don’t clean up those small failures, they may snowball into something you cannot control, derailing your success. 

“I think there’s a lot of value to think of ourselves, even after we succeed, as a work in progress,” Varol shares with Jay Shetty. “I think the moment you think you’ve made it is the moment you stop growing. The moment you declare yourself to be an expert on something is the moment that you start making confident declarations without backing them up with facts. The moment you think you’re in the lead is the moment you just stop listening to other people.”

“There’s a lot of value in staying humble in your success and realizing that you succeeded, not necessarily because of your genius, but you may have gotten lucky,” he continues to Jay Shetty. “If you don’t fix the errors that happened in the past, even in success, those failures might catch up to you in the long run.”

Jay Shetty agrees that there is a need for the appreciation of not just luck, but the things that may have lined up and gone right in your success. 

Input vs. Output

It is possible to do a lot of things right and still fail. It is also possible to do a lot of things wrong and still succeed. Society as a whole is so obsessed with output that we forget we need quality input. 

“I advise other people in businesses to reorient their focus away from outcomes, and toward inputs,” Varol shares with Jay Shetty. 

Varol loves writing and it brings him joy. He starts his day writing, but once he starts to think about best-seller lists and how many copies he will sell, it robs him of that joy of writing. 

“When people start focusing on outcomes, they start making bad decisions,” Varol explains to Jay Shetty.  “They try to anticipate what the market is going to want and try to cater to that. While it is an important part of the equation, it can’t be the only part of the equation.”

The focus becomes on the outputs, and the inputs become neglected. There needs to be a shift to focus on the inputs or the things that will make the outputs great. 

Pre Mortem is a useful strategy that Varol and others have used successfully in business to take the focus out of the outcome. To employ this strategy, you assume that whatever you are working on fails, then work backward to figure out what may have gone wrong. This strategy can help you identify things that may lead to a negative outcome and help you find solutions to prevent those failures before they hinder your success.

“The best thing we can do is to be more input-oriented and less outcome-oriented,” Varol shares with Jay Shetty. “That requires asking the same questions in failure and success. What went wrong or right with this success? What went wrong or right with this failure? That takes the focus off of the outcome, and points you toward what matters, which are the inputs.”

First Principles Thinking

What is first principles thinking, and how can it benefit you? 

First principles thinking is a way of thinking first discussed by Aristotle and popularized in modern times by Elon Musk, in which you organize your thoughts by cutting through assumptions that are cluttering your thinking. You unlearn what you know and leave the baggage of history behind to pave the way for a better future. Varol likens this with the difference between a cover band and the original artist. 

“A cover band plays somebody else’s songs,” Varol tells Jay Shetty. “The original singer goes back to the raw materials, the musical notes, and goes through the painstaking process of creating something new.”

First principles thinking is the creative process that allows you to be innovative and find solutions. Many times in life, people have a terrible habit of letting the assumptions they hear in society become their assumptions. 

“It is as if they are putting on other people’s assumptions like clothes,” Varol tells Jay Shetty. “All of a sudden, it feels like their own assumptions, and those assumptions block them from being creative and innovative, and finding these solutions.”

Assumptions generally come from social or educational conditioning. What you strive for becomes your ceiling, and we have been taught that small dreams are safer than shooting for the moon. When you hear this over and over, Jay Shetty says it becomes the message that limits you. With first principles thinking, if you aim a little higher than you have in the past, primarily if you are oriented toward future goals, the sky is the limit.

The Difference between Strategy and Tactic

Strategy and tactics tend to be used interchangeably, but there is a big difference in what they really mean. A strategy is an overall plan for achieving an objective. Tactics are the tools you use and the actions you take to get to an objective. Tactics are often traps.

“When people look for life hacks, they’re asking tactical questions,” Varol explains to Jay Shetty. “They’re trying to see what the other person did, then copy their tactics expecting the same outcome. This is generally a recipe for disaster. A strategy is very different. Once you define your strategy, you zoom out from the tactics to thinking about what you want to achieve in your life. This creates more wiggle room to come up with different strategies to achieve your goal.”

How to Shift your Mental Focus

Varol suggests the following things to Jay Shetty to help shift mental focus when faced with a challenge: 

First, ask good questions. This is an important skill to have. Ask strategic questions that move away from tactics so you can see why you’re trying to do what you do. Think about strategy, because once you zoom out to see it, you might be able to spot tactics that other people are missing.

Second, bring outside people into your conversation or project. Outsiders have a way of asking outstanding questions to help spot what you’re failing to see. 

“This does not mean you have to hire an expensive consultant or bring in an expensive speaker,” Varol explains to Jay Shetty. “It could be as simple as talking to your significant other or your friend who knows nothing about what you’re working on. Present what you’re thinking about to them and let them ask the really simple questions that are going to jolt you out of your perspective.”

Think Like a Rocket Scientist, The Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life will help you shift your thinking to remove those dreams from the shelf you have placed them on and make them your reality.

More From Jay Shetty

Listen to the entire On Purpose with Jay Shetty podcast episode with Ozan Varol on “The Power Of Smart Questions” now in the iTunes store or on Spotify. For more inspirational stories and messages like this, check out Jay’s website at jayshetty.me.

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